FRANKLIN – A smiling Darrell Young says his and his son’s 2022 alewife catches are better than ever, but he won’t disclose how much their harvest will exceed the 500-700 bushels landed in previous years in the Grist Mill Stream offshore of road 182.
Dustin Young and his crew waded into the creek early Monday morning, dragging fish swimming from Taunton Bay upstream and guiding them into a purse seine.
From a bridge and walkways along and over the creek, using a mast and boom system, Dustin Young, Steven Battis and Spencer Merritt work as a team to raise and lower a long, sturdy mesh bag through the brackish waters to pick up trapped alewife. The heavy bag of fish is then hoisted up, positioned and opened above a large wooden crate. Ashore, crew member Mike Klingaman serves as a hydraulic transporter of sorts, backing up with a rope attached to a pickup truck. On the Grist Mill deck above, Darrell Young oversees the operation and tends to lobster fishermen who come in to buy the fresh baitfish that fetch $30 a bushel, down from just $8 a bushel two decades ago. The fish is also sought after by halibut fishermen.
Maine’s gaspereau season runs from May 15 to June 15.
“We sell everything,” Darrell Young said. He provides gaspereaux for free to a couple in Great Pond Road who, from their previous lives in Alaska, have experience smoking fish.
Harvesting methods and the wooden scaffolding of Young and their crew, allowing them to maneuver around the bridge and stream at Grist Mill, were honed over 23 years. In addition to the Grist Mill Stream, the Youngs also manage the Card Brook Stream gaspereau at the head of Hog Bay under a five-year contract through the Franklin River Herring Ordinance. When they’re not trapping alewife, the father-son team has been focusing their energies on elver fishing for years.
Gaspereaux are one of several species of fish called “anadromous” or “anadromous” that move back and forth between fresh and salt water at key times in their life cycle. After four years of maturation in the ocean, the fish make their way back to ponds and lakes along the east coast. The baby alewife then hatch in the ponds and swim downstream to the sea. The fish have been a major food source for Atlantic salmon, striped bass, bluefish, cod and haddock.
In 1999, the dismantling of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River spurred the subsequent removal of other dams throughout Maine. While the initial impetus was to save the endangered Atlantic salmon, the alewife have benefited greatly. In Maine, alewife now number 60 to 100, and their numbers are increasing as more dams impeding their migration are removed. Just last week, gaspereaus swam alone upstream from China Lake for the first time since 1783. The gaspereau restoration project spanned a decade and involved the deconstruction or installation of fish passes at six dams on Outlet Stream at Vassalboro. As a result, China Lake is reconnected to the Sebastocook River and the ocean. Nearly one million adult alewife are expected to return to spawn in China Lake.
Another factor behind the return of the state’s alewife was the joint development and implementation by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the federal government’s National Marine Fisheries Service of a conservation plan for river herring along the Atlantic coast. As a result of this management plan, the Maine Department of Marine Resources required each town in Maine to submit an annual river herring harvest plan.
When he took over the river herring contract in 1999, Darrell Young’s predecessors were Charlie Bradbury and Eugene Robinson. Managing Grist Mill and Card Brooks, Young has refined his plan for each stream as his own knowledge of the fish has grown over the past two decades. Over the past five years, he has made a habit of letting 1,100 alewife migrate upstream during the season. This conservation measure paid off. Management of both alewife runs includes trapping beavers and removing their dams in the spring and fall to ensure adult and juvenile fish passage is not obstructed.
“We learned a lot,” Young said. ” They have [DMR fisheries scientists] I tagged the fish and figured out where they went and how much to let go for a good return.
A scenic spot frequented by great blue herons, the Grist Mill Creek Bridge has a beautiful granite staircase leading down to the creek. The flight of sturdy stone steps, featuring posts and rope handrails, was built by local builders Scott Picard and Dan Grant in 2013. Young paid for the city-authorized project, which cost $6,000, not only to make his gaspereau operation safer for him and his crew, but also as a place of public enjoyment in the town where he grew up.